The University of Akron and Northern Illinois didn’t light the world on fire offensively during their Mid-American Conference men's basketball game Saturday afternoon at Rhodes Arena.
Scoring droughts were the rule and not the exception as the teams struggled to find any rhythm before the Zips, nearly invincible at home, cemented that reputation with a 67-65 win over the Huskies.
“Today we played a bit more a complete game defensively, then our offense got going in the second half,” coach John Groce said after the Zips (12-8, 4-3) improved to 10-1 on their home floor.
Guard Loren Cristian Jackson led the Zips with 22 points and forward Daniel Utomi added 14 points, three rebounds and three assists.
NIU’s Eugene German led all scorers with 23 points and nine rebounds.
Each team endured protracted scoring droughts — UA was scoreless for several four-minute stretches — and the Huskies (11-9, 4-3) went without a field goal for one eight-minute span.
Eventually, one team had to find some semblance of offense, and it was the Zips, who shot a respectable 40 percent (14-of-35) from deep for the game but 50 percent (10-of-20) on 3s in the second half.
“I think Coach came in there at halftime and told us to make shots, [and] not to overcomplicate anything,” said guard Jimond Ivey, who finished with 11 points and eight rebounds.
Groce said he told his players during the week it was OK for them to have doubts and used an interview with golfer Tiger Woods talking about his struggles to regain success to illustrate the point. He said they didn’t allow those doubts to get to them.
“Water always finds its level,” Groce said. “These guys are too good as shooters.”
The Zips used a 17-5 run to open the second half to create some breathing room, but they couldn't maintain it. After building an 11-point lead with 9:34 to play and appearing on the verge of gaining revenge for a loss to the Huskies earlier in the season, UA faltered and NIU scrambled back to tie the score at 54-all on two free throws by German with 1:57 to play.
The Zips then turned to Utomi, who came into the game struggling, on the ensuing possession and he calmly delivered a step-back 3-pointer to give the Zips a 57-54 lead. German connected on one free throw to make it 57-55, but Ivey got into the flow with a 3-pointer to give the Zips a 60-55 lead.
After German answered with a 3-pointer, Ivey responded with another 3 to put the Zips up 63-58 with 27 seconds remaining. But German wasn't done and made another 3 to close the gap to 63-61 before four clutch free throws by Jackson in the final 20 seconds sealed the victory.
“This was the second game we were up where a team just hit hellacious 3s,” Jackson said, recounting that it also happened in a 70-67 win over Central Michigan last week. “I was like, ‘Why us?’ It shows our character because we’re not folding.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByGeorgeThomas.